The Xbox One S is a mea culpa in the shape of a white plastic box. It takes all the stuff that didn’t make sense about Microsoft’s third proper games console and gives it a right royal heave ho.
Kinect? Kablamo. A £400+ asking price? Eradicated. That monumentally fugly power brick? First to the wall. Three years after the fact, the Xbox One looks and feels like a more enticing machine than the PS4. Better still, it now comes with a 4K Blu-ray player, support for HDR gaming and a sleek design that doesn’t make you want to barf on first sight.
Job done then? Would that it were so simple. As you well know, reader, there’s the small matter of an updated PlayStation 4K around the corner and an even more powerful Xbox Project Scorpio set for release next year.
The latest skirmish in the never-ending Sony vs Microsoft war is more befuddling than ever before, so let’s make this real simple. If you want to buy the best games console out now, then get the Xbox One S. If you want to buy the best games console out this year, then you’ll need to hold tight for a couple of months.
Xbox One S Design: 40% smaller, infinitely better
OK. Let’s start with the easy stuff. As games consoles go, the Xbox One S is rather handsome indeed. Just as no one goes to a museum solely for its gift store, looks are still an important part of a games machine’s make up. If you’re going to use a console every day or so, you’d rather it didn’t share the same unedifying visage as an own-brand Argos VHS player.
Mercifully, the One S leaps over this low bar as though it’s Jess Ennis competing in the hurdles at a school sports day. Its white shell and dotted grill are really quite striking and a 40% trim in size means this console is far from the behemoth it once was. Best of all, it does away with the power brick needed to run previous Xbox Ones - a revelation of monumental proportions.
Why? In essence, the power brick was an arse. A hairy, pimpled arse that became symbolic of some quite dreadful design choices. Upon taking the thing out of the console’s box, your first thought was to how quickly you’d be able to scurry it out of sight again. Now that faff has been consigned to history, what you’re left with is a device you can actually display with pride in your living room.
To that end, the One S has been designed to work upright and comes with a complimentary plastic stand to adeptly prop it up. So if you want to plonk it right on the side of your TV, that’s a thing you can now do. You probably won’t, but it’s good to have the option.
Xbox One S controller: gets a grip
One of the most significant cosmetic changes that’s been touted about the One S is its new controller, which is near-on identical to the original One controller. Its control sticks are made from a slightly more durable material, it’s got a greater wireless play range than before and its back is populated with these neat rubberised dimples. In day-to-day terms, you’ll struggle to notice these changes. At least we did.
Those dimples are meant to aid your grip on the controller after a particularly frantic Rocket League session, but they’re too small to have a significant impact on your gaming. Especially if you regularly sweat like a sumo wrestler in a sauna. That’s OK though. The original Xbox One controller had a sturdy weight to it and sat well in your hands, and this one does exactly the same.
A far greater annoyance is that it hasn’t been updated with built-in wireless charging. It still doesn’t even come with a charging kit. Being told you need to load up a gamepad with a fresh pair of AA batteries only to remember you were too lazy to pick any up on your way home from work is one of life’s most blood-curdling frustrations. Environmentally speaking, this routine is incredibly wasteful too. If the PS4’s controllers can be rechargeable as standard, there’s no good reason why Microsoft can’t enable the same.
On the plus side, the One S’ pad now gives you Bluetooth support, which is an absolute gift for PC gamers. Hooking this thing up to a Windows 10 PC or laptop is a cinch and means you don’t have you plug yet another cable or wireless adapter into your rig.
Naturally, this is all part of Microsoft’s newfound Xbox and PC friendliness, which also includes Xbox Play Anywhere - buy a downloadable copy of a game on one platform and you can play it on the other, with progress and achievements synchronised across both. Admittedly the cost of buying a digital copy of a game in this way is far higher than simply buying a disc, but as any grandma worth her salt will tell you, ‘There’s no such thing as a free meal.’
Xbox One S 4K gaming: almost, but not quite
This is especially the case when it comes to the One S’ 4K capabilities. Put simply, if you don’t own a 4K TV or won’t be buying one before the end of the year then don’t buy an Xbox One S. This shouldn’t be a particularly great revelation to anyone though. It’s a bit like saying, ‘If you don’t like chocolate then don’t go on the Cadbury’s factory tour’.
More so than its newfound facelift, the Xbox One S is a console that’s being sold on its 4K and HDR [High Dynamic Range] capabilities. In technical terms, this means the Xbox One S has an HDMI 2.0a port that enables a 4K 60Hz output. The Xbox One supports only HDMI 1.4a, which simply can’t handle 4K video or gaming.
Right now the One S is the only 4K games console you can buy and that means its picture quality is, in theory at least, four times better than any competing machine. Even if maths isn’t your strong point, you’ll know that’s quite a big difference.
Better still, the One S is also the best value 4K Blu-ray player you can own by quite some margin. In contrast, Samsung’s UBD-K8500 player costs £380 and can’t play Tetris, let alone Gears of War 4 or Forza Horizon 3. If you’re looking to get more value out of your new 4K TV, buying either this console or the also 4K-capable PS4 Neo feels like a no-brainer.
The only catch? 4K gaming on the Xbox One S isn’t really ‘true’ 4K. Confused? Allow us to get all techie on you.
Xbox One S 4K upscaling: stunning, but the PS4K should be better
Every game for the Xbox One platform has been designed in high definition - mostly 1080p or a little below that. To display these games on a 4K screen, they’ll be upscaled to that resolution - and that process involves adding extra pixels where they’re not provided by game makers. Essentially, the device doing the upscaling - in this case the Xbox One S - is guessing what it thinks the missing pixels are supposed to be displaying.
If you plug your PS4 into a 4K TV the same upscaling will take place as well, but it will be the telly doing it rather than the console, and the result is less impressive. Playing The Witcher 3 can give you all kinds of image processing problems unless you tweak your telly’s settings to adjust for them. Then it’s pretty good, especially when your screen isn’t dealing with a lot of motion.
In contrast, the Xbox One S’ upscaling is stunning straight off the bat. The Siberian snow storm that opens Rise of the Tomb Raider looked absolutely glorious on our screen at home and we winced that little bit more in fear as Lara leapt from ice-laden mountain face to snow-swept crevasse. Because of those pixels that are added in there are moments in close-ups where a hand or window ledge looks slightly coarser than it might have in HD, but we’re talking about very fine margins.
Besides, no console that’s out this year or next will offer you a dramatically better performance. Sony’s PlayStation 4 Neo is very likely to support a 1440p output (read: 2K resolution) when it launches before Christmas, which means its picture will still be upscaled for 4K screens. Granted, by 2x instead of 4x with the One S, but there’ll still be a fair amount of image processing going on here.
Think of it like buying a bottle of milk. With both the One S and PS4 Neo, you’re essentially getting semi-skimmed 4K, as opposed to the creamy, full-fat option. Either way you’ve got a delicious and nutritious drink right there.
And as for the mythical Xbox Project Scorpio? We’d expect that to get much closer to that native, full-fat 4K, but given that even a big, standalone PC graphics card such as the new Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 isn’t entirely consistent with its 4K performance, you can still expect some graphical compromises to be made.
In short, we’re not as close to the dawn of genuine 4K console gaming as you might imagine. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the Xbox One S’ support for HDR.
Xbox One S HDR: its ace in the hole
Not heard of HDR? Don’t worry - if you’ve bought a new 4K telly in the last six months there’s a good chance it’s got this spec built in, which means you’ll be able to enjoy Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 in jaw-dropping quality when they release later this year. And action-RPG Scalebound when it drops in 2017.
To continue with our egregious use of food metaphors, the difference between 4K without HDR and 4K with HDR is like eating a burger without cheese and bacon. It’s still great, but not cheese and bacon great.
What HDR does offer is greater contrast between dark and light shades of colour for a more dazzling, dynamic picture. Imagine you’re watching a flash of white heat as plasma sears out of a Scattershot rifle in the next Halo game. With HDR and 4K enabled any muddiness that might occur when colours meet is near-on eradicated and you’re left with an image that pops out of the screen and sears your retinas (not literally). It’s awesome when you see the effect on movies and it should look pretty special when gaming too.
Mercifully for the movies part of this equation, there’s no such need to wait and see.
Xbox One S 4K Blu-ray Player: great value, great performance
Sure, you can stream 4K from Netflix and Amazon, but here’s a secret - streamed 4K is not as lovely as 4K from a disc. Luckily, the Xbox One S supports all three. Or at least will when the Amazon app is updated in the near future.
Not only are these 4K sources supported, they also get the HDR treatment, and from the dust and fire of Mad Max to The Revenant’s hyper-visceral brutality, watching a 4K Blu-ray is the finest cinematic experience you can have in your living room.
Making the step up to 4K Blu-ray from standard 1080p Blu-ray isn’t quite the same leap as it was from VHS to DVD, but it’s still dramatic. Michael Fassbender’s furrowed brow in X-Men: Days of Future Past is so deep and well-defined you could build a small mining village in there, while watching sweat ripple off The Rock’s biceps in San Andreas is enough to make any man weep at the state of their own chicken wings.
Despite this, true cinephiles are going to want to know how the One S shapes up against the best 4K Blu-ray player on the market: Panasonic’s DMP-UB900. We tested the two in a side-by-side comparison and the Panasonic fared best, but then it does cost £600. Study Quicksilver’s slow-mo jaunt around a heavily armed kitchen in X-Men and you’ll enjoy better-defined colours and sharper particle effects from the Panny. Droplets aren’t quite as well defined on the Xbox, while the ingredients scattered around the scene are ever so slightly more vivid and less true to life in terms of colours.
Is that shortcoming in fidelity worth paying an extra £250 for? Probably not, especially given the feature list advantage that Microsoft’s console has over Panasonic’s Blu-ray player. Real AV aficionados might spot the differences, but most of us will be too busy scoffing popcorn and basking in the ultra-bright glow of HDR to worry whether Wolverine’s scowl is perfectly rendered to the n-th degree.
Xbox One S build: Kinect, we hardly knew thee
Naturally, the Xbox One S’ 4K Blu-ray drive has caught the most attention in the run up to its release. Look beyond that innovation though and you won’t find much of note at all. Don’t be fooled by its dapper exterior, this is pretty much the same console as the original Xbox One - only it comes with a whopping great 2TB hard drive, new IR blaster and has had one of its USB ports shifted forwards to the front of the console.
That crucially means it’s got exactly the same amount of processing power as ever before. In order to support HDR-enabled games, Microsoft has handed developers access to a little more of the Xbox One S’s CPU and GPU than they got with the Xbox One, but this won’t result in a tangible performance upgrade. In other words, FIFA 17 won’t look any better or play any smoother on the One S than the One. Gamers will only see the benefit when they play those HDR-friendly titles such as Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3.
The idea behind this is pretty obvious: current Xbox One owners won’t end up as second class citizens. That’s fair enough… until you bear in mind that Microsoft has been less than clear on whether developers will end up making exclusive titles for its Project Scorpio machine. Introduced as ‘the most powerful console ever’ at E3 this year, it essentially guarantees the One S will be outdated in the space of a year.
And while it’s clear that Kinect is no longer part of Microsoft’s Xbox plans, it’s a little galling that an extra adapter is required in order to connect to the One S a peripheral that the company once forced upon its customers.
Xbox One S games: Halo from the other side
As anyone who owns a Wii U will know, owning a fancy console is one thing and having enough games to play on it is another entirely. To misquote Jesus, ‘Man cannot live on Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker alone.’
Compared to the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One still feels like it’s lacking a bona fide AAA system seller. Halo 5: Guardians was OK, Rise of the Tomb Raider was good, swashbuckling fun and Quantum Break toyed with the laws of gaming narrative. Still, none of these titles quite lives up to the epic standards of Uncharted 4, Bloodborne or The Last of Us: Remastered. Games you’ll skip out of work early to play and will keep raving about for months to come.
That said, Microsoft’s upcoming slate of exclusives is very promising indeed. Arguably more so than Sony’s. There’s the bombastic Gears of War 4, gorgeous Forza Horizon 3, promising Halo Wars 2 and pirate-tastic Sea of Thieves all scheduled for release in the not too distant future. That’s not to mention the slate of phenomenal indie games Microsoft has quietly been curating for itself. You won’t see posters of them plastered on the side of a bus anytime soon, but Inside, Superhot and Ori and The Blind Forest are all well worth your attention.
Combined with the usual third-party fare of Battlefield 1, FIFA 17, Final Fantasy XV and plenty more, you certainly won’t be short of new stuff to play on an Xbox One S this Christmas. And then there’s the old stuff to be digging back into.
Xbox One S backwards compatibility: back to the future
After kicking up quite the palaver with its initial DRM plans for the Xbox One, Microsoft has seemingly bent over backwards to be as gamer-friendly as possible ever since. Most recently, it’s done this by suggesting cross-platform online play between Xbox and PlayStation consoles - should Sony ever decide to go along by the idea.
Better still, over 200 games for the Xbox 360 have been made backwards compatible for the One, meaning the likes of Halo: Reach, Borderlands and Fable III are all free to replay. That’s whether you’ve held onto your discs for them or bought them digitally through the Xbox Store. It’s an immensely popular feature and with good reason: Sony’s PlayStation 4 again doesn't offer anything of the sort.
Granted if you really want to play your old Xbox 360 favourites then you could always just dig out that console from the attic, assuming it never succumbed to the red ring of death. It’s not half as convenient as redownloading Mirror’s Edge and hopping straight back into Glass city though.
As you’d expect, upscaling a 720p game into 4K has the tendency to make it look mighty dated, but that’s hardly cause for consternation. EA’s recently rebooted classic is eight years old now.
Xbox One S dashboard: summertime, feeling fine
Updated as of this weekend, the Xbox One dashboard is a much cleaner affair to get to grips with. Now running with Windows 10 at its core, the summer update gives you easier access to your games via the top right-hand side of the homescreen and has rejigged the Xbox Store so that games, movies and apps sit together in harmony instead of their former cluttered bedlam.
Microsoft’s so-so voice assistant Cortana has also been baked into the dashboard, so you can ask it for the weather, whether Manchester United are still as woeful as they were last season or whether a day spent with Rare Replay is a valid use of your adult life. Actually, not so much with that last one but you get the drift. If you’re jumping aboard the Xbox One bandwagon for the first time with the One S, then it’s a good time to be doing so.
That said, getting your 4K TV to play nice with the One S can be a hassle at first. Upon installing the summer update you’ll be asked whether you want the Xbox to output 4K. Agreeing to this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be automatically treated to HDR as well though. In our experience, you’ll need to fiddle with your TV’s settings to be greeted with a list of green ticks in the ‘4K details’ troubleshooting menu.
Microsoft Xbox One S Verdict
If the Xbox One S is meant to atone for the original One’s botched launch, it’s job done. This is a great 4K Blu-ray player, and it does a fab job of upscaling your favourite games into 4K.
But it’s not the only 4K games console out this year.
The lingering spectre of Sony’s PlayStation 4 Neo makes reviewing the One S a mighty tricky proposition. And by ‘mighty tricky’, we mean our buttocks have rarely been wedged so deep on the proverbial fence. For most people, buying Microsoft’s latest console right now would be akin to declaring the Premier League winner while the summer transfer window is still open.
There’s just so much left to play for, and that’s before you account for Xbox Project Scorpio. A console that’ll render the One S outdated in the space of a year. See, we told you up top this was a befuddling business. So let’s simplify everything again one last time.
The Xbox One S is the best games console out right now, and the best Xbox you can buy for the next 12 months. If that’s not reason enough for you to own one, then hold onto your cash for the moment. We’ll let you know whether things change once the PS4 Neo launches in a few months.
At the moment in the 4K console war, it’s advantage Xbox.